The Cube, the Corn, and Pesticide Concerns

Imagine, if you will, a cornfield. It’s just your average cornfield; nothing special. In this verdant field captured in your mind’s eye, what do you see? Hear? I’d imagine that, in addition to silky tassels swaying in the wind, you also picture an array of flora and fauna completing the scene. Perhaps ants and beetles burrowing in the dirt? Opportunistic wildflower or weeds? Surely birds circle overheard, filling the air with their chirping. This is, after all, a cornfield. (There may or may not be a crazed madman or two hiding in my mental cornfield, but I watch too many horror movies.)

Keep that image in your mind for a moment or two.

Corn fields and mountains

I read a great piece on NPR’s website recently about portrait photographer David Liittschwager and his “cube” project. Basically, Liittschwager traveled the world over the course of a few years and situated metal cubes (one cubic foot apiece) in all sorts of outdoor settings – parks, gardens, lakes, fields, and so on. Once a cube was in place, he’d spend twenty-four hours photographing anything that came through the cube. His only criterion was that the subjects of these photos be big enough to see with the naked eye. Therefore, in a public park in Cape Town, South Africa, Liittschwager captured seventy different insects and thirty different types of plant. This was all within one square foot!

If the biological diversity within that one cube sounds impressive, consider the fact that, as Liittschwager points out, ‘’if we picked the cube up and walked 10 feet, we could get as much as 50 percent difference in plant species we encountered. If we moved it uphill, we might find none of the species.” The results were not confined to just Africa, either. In Costa Rica, one hundred feet off the ground in the boughs of a fig tree, Liittschwager captured no less than one hundred fifty different plants and animals. Biological diversity is the rule, not the exception.

bee on a flower

A bee on a flower helps with cross-pollination and they help maintain global biodiversity, alongside many other insects and animals.

Liittschwager never ventured into the cornfields of Iowa to take a cubic census, but a pair of NPR researchers did. They dedicated a long weekend to hanging out somewhere in the midst of Iowa’s estimated three trillion stalks of corn to get to know the locals, so to speak. What did they find out there in Grundy County, in the midst of the six hundred acre farm that they crashed for three days? (Think about your mental cornfield again here for a moment.)


corn fields in the USA

Farmers use machines and pesticides to rid their corn crops of all chance for biodiversity.

Corn farmers aren’t fans of biological diversity, because “diversity,” to them, translates to bugaboos, weeds, or other pests that might disturb their crop. If it eats corn, or hurts corn, it is targeted with massive spraying of pesticides. Consequently, researchers found, there is almost nothing in the cornfields … but corn. The lack of insect or bird noise in the fields was eerie, they report. There were no bees to be found, no snakes or beetles. They did find a single, teeny-tiny mushroom, one spider, one fly, and a red mite. That’s about it. Tell me that isn’t (almost) creepier than masked boogeymen in the fields!

Once upon a time, our cornfields grew in some of the richest earth in the country. Now, unfortunately, we have wiped out just about every plant and animal species native to the area, whether helpful or harmful to the corn. This includes plant life that aerates the soil, insects that fertilize crops, and anything else that contributed to a “normal” ecosystem. In a quest to yield hardier, bigger, more abundant corn, we’ve pretty much nuked everything else.

Empty corn fields

Fields aren’t meant to be quiet places. It’s an unnatural state. I myself haven’t spent too much time worrying about where my food comes from in the recent past, but strangely reading about Liittschwager’s cubes really drove the point home for me. I’m not sure I want to eat corn that grew in a silent, biologically sterile field. I’m sure there’s paragraphs and paragraphs more that a smarter person could write about GMOs, pesticides, non-organic produce and so on … but that’s my bottom line.

  • nicole

    thank you for that!
    I read about David’s work a few months back.
    this is a great summary… and worded imagery.